Democrats Not Giving Up on Georgia

Posted September 8, 2004 at 6:27pm

Despite the widely held perception that Democrats have written off the Georgia Senate race, party strategists are now focusing renewed attention and resources on the uphill campaign of Rep. Denise Majette (D-Ga.).

Majette, the first black woman to be nominated for Senate in the state, addressed the Senate Democratic Caucus yesterday and is scheduled to meet with Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Jon Corzine (N.J.) today to discuss her race against Rep. Johnny Isakson (R).

“We have a good candidate and she has tremendous desire, a great heart and I think people will recognize it as she gets known in the state,” Corzine said Tuesday.

Still, the DSCC chairman stopped short of making any financial commitment to the open-seat race down the stretch, although he expressed guarded optimism about the potential for a top-tier race to materialize.

“We’ll keep an eye on it,” Corzine said. “We want to be very supportive. We think it’s terrific to see women and people of different backgrounds stand up for what they believe in and be effective in the political process. We’d love to see as strong a race as possible.”

Republicans, meanwhile, laughed off the idea that Democrats plan to make the Georgia race a top priority in their effort to get to 51 seats.

“The Senate Democrats realize that their slim chances of regaining the majority are becoming less and less of a reality and the fact that they are all of sudden pinning their hopes on Denise Majette just shows how desperate they are,” said National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Dan Allen.

The race to succeed retiring Sen. Zell Miller (D-Ga.) has long been viewed as a given pickup for Republicans, and especially so after Isakson won a heated three-way primary without a runoff. In fact, Republicans are so confident in the Georgia race that when the National Republican Senatorial Committee set up a joint fundraising committee to benefit 11 of their most important races and candidates, Isakson wasn’t included.

Yesterday the DSCC handed Majette’s campaign a check for $34,000, almost all of the maximum hard dollar amount the committee can contribute to a candidate. Majette is the last of the party’s open-seat nominees to receive a 441a(h) contribution from the DSCC.

Under campaign finance rules, party committees can contribute $35,000 to each Senate candidate in an election year (otherwise known as 441a(h) money). Committees are also able to spend higher amounts of hard money on competitive races through coordinated party expenditures (known as 441a(d) money). The maximum the DSCC could spend in 441a(d) money on Majette’s behalf is around $950,000.

Majette’s Caucus appearance and the money cut to her campaign come on the heels of a new poll, commissioned by the DSCC, which showed Isakson leading Majette by a slim 5-point margin.

The Global Strategy Group poll found Isakson taking 46 percent to Majette’s 41 percent among the probable voters surveyed. Isakson led 48 percent to 43 percent among definite voters. The poll, conducted Aug. 26-30, had a 4-percent margin of error.

Pollster Harrison Hickman, who conducted the survey, said the fact that Isakson is polling right at or just below the 50 percent mark should raise red flags for the GOP, considering he has run for statewide office before and ran several million dollars worth of advertising during the primary.

“I know that if he were my client I’d be concerned about the situation he’s in,” Hickman said.

The poll showed Majette had a 79 percent to 9 percent lead among black voters while white voters favored Isakson by a two-to-one margin.

Although Isakson won the July primary outright with 53 percent of the vote, Hickman suggested that the post-primary polling showed Isakson may still has some fences to mend.

“There are an awful lot of people who’ve had an opportunity to vote against him over the years,” he said.

Isakson’s campaign released their own poll yesterday that showed him ahead by 15 points. The three-term Congressman from Marietta led Majette 51 percent to 36 percent in the American Viewpoint, Inc. survey. Recent independent polling has shown similar results.

“Clearly Congressman Isakson is the frontrunner in this race, but this should in no way be viewed as an easy victory,” pollsters Linda DiVall and Randall Gutermuth wrote in the polling memo. They also wrote that in a presidential year any statewide Democratic candidate in Georgia is guaranteed about 45 percent of the vote on Election Day.

The GOP poll found that in the Atlanta media market, where 64 percent of the electorate resides, Isakson led 52 percent to 34 percent.

Majette, a former state court judge from DeKalb County, was elected to the House in 2002. She handily defeated then-Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D) in a high-profile and contentious primary.

But when she stunned staff and colleagues by announcing earlier this year that she was running for Senate, she encountered more eye rolling than congratulatory hugs.

By that point, the Georgia Senate race had been virtually written off by party strategists after embarrassing failed attempts to coax a top-tier contender into the race.

Both in the primary and runoff Majette ran a low profile grassroots campaign, focusing on turning out the vote in the black community both inside and outside of Atlanta. She won the nomination without running a single television advertisement.

Heading into the runoff, Majette had only $78,000 in her campaign account as of July 21 and doubts about her ability to raise enough money to remain competitive with Isakson have continued to dog her campaign.

Democratic sources said Majette’s fundraising has spiked since Miller’s speech last week at the Republican National Convention. A recent e-mail solicitation from the liberal group MoveOn.org raised in excess of $200,000 in bundled hard money for her campaign.

However, Majette spokesman Rick Dent declined to talk about the campaign’s fundraising.

Majette’s campaign team met with top DSCC officials Wednesday.

She recently hired Georgia campaign veteran Jim Andrews to be her general consultant and bumped Jeannie Layson, her former press secretary, up to be campaign manager.

Celinda Lake, who did Majette’s polling through the primary and runoff, remains her campaign pollster. Lake predicted that Majette’s success hinges on her ability to build on her strong base within two demographics: African-Americans and women.

“I think that this could be one that really ends up being a surprise and a late-breaking surprise,” Lake said, invoking the names of former clients former-Sen. Carol Moseley Braun (D-Ill.) and ex-Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt.

Braun came from nowhere to win a three-way Democratic primary and a Senate seat in 1992 while Gantt challenged then-Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) in 1990 and 1996.

Meanwhile, Majette received a standing ovation and all around kudos during her appearance in front of her would-be colleagues at Wednesday’s Democratic policy luncheon.

“She was wonderful,” said Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, the vice chairwoman of the DSCC. “She was great. We are going to help her.”

“She put her finger on it,” Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) said of Majette’s presentation to the Democratic Senators. “She said, ‘The most important thing the voters of my state are looking for are character and values.’ Boy does she just exude it.”

Mark Preston contributed to this report.